I am in Singapore. I am working. I have been here before. It’s an interesting place. For the last 60 years, the Singaporeans have run their country based on a strong state and collective welfare rather than our Western focus on individual rights.
So freedom of speech is not a big thing here and you can forget trial by jury – if you are naughty you will be presided over by a small group of judges rather than 12 of your peers. I’m OK with that. Also, the government here kill people for certain crimes, like murder and drug running. That’s not my management style. Also, if you plan to meet in public and there are more than 5 of you, the police will want to have a look at your CV and your passport before (maybe) giving you a permit.
And there isn’t a piece of chewing gum to be had here for love or money.
This collective vs individual thing got me thinking.
I spend a lot of time working in organisations helping them to get what they want with minimal effing around. When the organisation comes first, and individuality is tolerated only within bounds, the organisation stands a chance of success. When the staff’s needs and desires take precedence over those of the organisation, the organisation massively underperforms its potential. And, strangely, the indulged staff are seldom made happy by their indulgence.
For every superstar individual in an organisation, like Steve Jobs, there are battalions of little Hitlers, turning everyone into an extra in a real-life episode of The Office, or managers who think they are your parent, keeping you dependent with the best of intentions.
I like the leadership in my son’s school because they make it clear that “we are running this school for the majority. We are not running it so that your little Johnny can express his incipient social psychopathy under the guise of what you, his doting parent, have mistaken for creativity.” (I’m paraphrasing here. But I tell you, that is what they meant and it was clear to those who were listening.)
We win 65 gold gongs in the Olympics because the management of all sport in the UK over the last 10 years has prioritised the collective good of all aspiring athletes over the individual good. Underperform and you’re out (and the money saved goes to someone else who can perform). Having “participation” rather than winning as the goal, as was the case until recently, is supremely individualistic with ingrained dire results.
These are examples of a focus on the collective benefit. But here’s a key point – this focus does not lead to fluffiness. The management is still hard as nails. Tough love. Hardcore.
And I guess that’s the point my fuzzy brain is trying to crystallise. I could equally make a list of examples where a focus on the individual has led to greatness.
Maybe the issue is not the focus; it’s the intellectual honesty of the management. Collectivism does not mean “fluffy/no challenge/culture of underperformance” and individuality does not mean “do what you like/it’s all good/winner takes all.”
The collective vs individual focus is a choice. But the choice is only made good by objective, assertive and principled management and leadership.
Same as it ever was.